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The Smelling Committee (2006-07)


Inspired by the olfactory bravado of the original Smelling Committee, we led an historical simulacrum of the 1891 adventure by conducting an olfactory mapping of a corner of Brooklyn. The tour highlighted the largest urban oil spill, which continues to spread beneath Brooklyn 50 years after it occurred. Collaboration with Michael McBean.

The trek invited reflection upon the ephemeral, odiferous fabric of Brooklyn neighborhoods by actively smelling sites, discussing the neurological structure of smell, a natural history of odor, pollution and industry in Brooklyn, and personal smell stories.

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Performers explain the link of odor to emotional memory at the laundromat during the Conflux Festival. Photograph by James Maher.

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Many thanks to Glowlab and the Conflux Festival 2006, our performers Caitlin Mulhern, Garth Silberstein and Seth Williams, our photographers James Maher (images 1-2, 5-6) and Joshua Weiner (images 3-4), and everyone who came out in the pouring rain to experience the odors of Williamsburg!

In 1891… “Irritated by the foul stenches that wafted through their northeast Brooklyn neighborhood, members of the Fifteenth Ward Smelling Committee embarked on a boat trip up Newtown Creek in September… in search of the responsible parties. They reached a point across from the oil refineries where ‘the stenches began asserting themselves with all the vigor of fully developed stenches.’ What the Smelling Committee quickly discovered was that an unusually heavy concentration of industrial activity… had transformed the area around Newtown Creek into an ecological wasteland.” – Andrew Hurley (1994)


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